Belgium earned its highest World Cup finish by beating England 2-0 in the third-place match on Saturday in St. Petersburg. The goals came from Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard, once in each half.
“These players didn’t want to rely on talent anymore, wanted to work as a team,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, who has managed most of his career in England. “Their standards have been magnificent. They wanted to make the country proud.”
Meunier’s early goal matched a World Cup record with Belgium having 10 players score in a tournament, something done only twice before — by France in 1982 and Italy in 2006. Hazard added the other off a pass from Kevin De Bruyne in the 82nd minute.
Both Belgium and England were playing for the seventh time in 26 days, but the Belgians entered the match with an extra day of rest.
England matched its best World Cup result — fourth in 1990 — since winning the tournament for the only time in 1966.
“Today shows there’s room for improvement. We’re not the finished article. We’re still learning. We’re still getting better,” England striker Harry Kane said. “We don’t want to wait another 20-odd years to get into another major semifinal.”
Kane is still placed to win the Golden Boot with a tournament-leading six goals ahead of Sunday’s final. He last scored in England’s win over Colombia in the round of 16.
It hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride through the World Cup for Croatia, which plays France in Sunday’s final. And we’re not just talking about the three extra-time games the team has played in the last two weeks.
Two members of the delegation have been sent home — striker Nikola Kalinic for refusing to come on as a substitute in the opening game against Nigeria and assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic for making a pro-Ukraine video with defender Domagoj Vida. Then there’s the ongoing corruption case Croatia will have to deal with immediately after the tournament.
Damir Vrbanovic, the director general of the soccer federation, has been at matches despite being convicted last month in an embezzlement and tax-evasion case linked to the transfer of captain Luka Modric from Dinamo Zagreb to Premier League club Tottenham in 2008. Modric, who has declined to discuss the case at the World Cup, has been charged with perjury. Former Dinamo teammate Dejan Lovren is also under investigation for suspected false statements as his transfer to France’s Lyon in 2010 is investigated.
“I try to deflect negative things from players, the national team and squad,” coach Zlatko Dalic said. “It’s easy to slip into problems. We had many and if I were to create more as a coach, we wouldn’t stand a chance. I had to be the one to focus on the positives.”
Croatia has routinely been fined or forced to play in empty stadiums in home World Cup and European Championship qualifiers over discriminatory chants and imagery, including a swastika that was drawn on the field before a home game last year.
“The cult of our national team was in tatters,” Dalic said. “There were many people who boycotted the national team, but now there are people out in the street celebrating.”
The World Cup success could be a turning point in other ways too. Just reaching the final ensures Croatia will bank $28 million; winning it means an extra $10 million in prize money for a federation that operates on a budget of $35 million.
Leading Croatia into the final is a chance for Dalic to publicly appeal for some of that windfall to be reinvested to infrastructure and developing the game domestically.
“This is a huge problem,” Dalic said. “I hope something may be kick-started because if not now, when?